The times are they a-changing?

Bob Burnett

Increasingly, foundations and donor education providers are organizing donor tours (or site visits) overseas for groups of philanthropists. These often seem to be the most valued part of donor education courses. What do people get out of these trips? Bob Burnett and Kathy Barry were part of a Tides Foundation delegation to this year’s World Social Forum at Porto Alegre, Brazil. Here Bob Burnett describes the event and what it meant to them.

“In October 2002 my wife, Kathy Barry, attended the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) international forum, ‘Reinventing Globalization’, in Guadalajara, Mexico, with a delegation from the Global Fund for Women. When she returned, she said that we should seriously consider going to the World Social Forum (WSF) to be held in January at Porto Alegre, Brazil. During the Guadalajara conference other delegates had told her that the WSF is the one place where activists from all parts of the global justice movement gather to talk and network: environmentalists, human rights advocates, peace and justice activists. Though neither of us had ever been further south than Mexico, and it would take at least 19 hours to get to Porto Alegre from San Francisco airport – an important factor since Kathy doesn’t like to fly – we decided to go as part of the Tides Foundation delegation. This turned out to be a very good decision on our part.

Our background

I retired from a career in technology in 1991, and Kathy left her psychotherapy practice in 1998. Since then both of us have been engaged as social activists, and as donors through a donor-advised fund at Tides Foundation.

Until now most of our focus has been on domestic philanthropy. We began by building upon on our prior personal interests: myself in the peace movement and support for the homeless; Kathy in the women’s rights movement and in support of children, youth and families; both of us in social and economic justice (for example, we are part of Tides Foundation’s ‘Bridging the Economic Divide’ initiative). Gradually this has expanded to include international efforts such as the Global Fund for Women and the Urgent Action Fund. None the less, I know far more about social justice activities in the US than I do about those in the rest of the world. That changed at Porto Alegre.

Before saying more about the WSF, I feel that I should add one more bit of personal information: we are both Quakers. This means that we have a defined moral outlook. I found that this perspective seemed to be generally shared by the participants in the WSF. For example, the theme of the forum is ‘another world is possible’. I found that many participants interpreted that to mean that a world of peace and justice is possible here on earth. We feel that as human beings, our moral responsibility is to work toward this goal.

Visiting MST

The day before the Forum started, our delegation – the people that attended under the Tides umbrella, as well as a larger group of funders from other US-based foundations – boarded two buses and went on a field trip to visit Brazil’s landless workers’ movement, MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). Guided by members of the San-Francisco-based Friends of the MST, we first visited an encampment where 3,000 men, women and children wait for land to become available. We could not help but be moved by the determination of the families we visited in their sparse shanties constructed out of black plastic wrap strung over wood frames. Next we visited a successful settlement where we heard vivid tales of accomplishment and independence.

At the Forum

Even though the Forum happened while the US was preparing to go to war unilaterally, resulting in many speakers railing against American imperialism, Forum participants welcomed us warmly. Whenever I identified myself as an American, delegates came up to let me know how glad they were that Americans were present. Many asked what they could do to help peace and justice activists in the US during this time of crisis in our democracy. The best response to this question came from one of our delegation, Medea Benjamin, from Global Exchange in San Francisco, who said: ‘Thirty years ago we were with you in Chile. Twenty years ago we were with you in El Salvador. Ten years ago we were with you in Mexico. Now we need your help in the United States.’

Being at the Forum reminded me of being a teenager on a big date: wildly erratic, confusing, emotional and ultimately exhilarating.

The real highlights of the Forum were the speech give by the newly elected Brazilian President and two late afternoon panels in an indoor soccer stadium, one on the subject ‘Against Mililtarization and War’ and the other on ‘Peace and Values’.

There is a palpable sense of optimism in Brazil where citizens are still celebrating the accession of their new president, one-time machinist Luiz Ináncio Lula da Silva. Lula spoke to the World Social Forum on Friday evening and received rock-star treatment – ‘lulaphoria’. (Every major gathering I went to was interrupted at least once while everyone in the crowd sang the Lula song: ‘Olé! Olé! Ola! Lu-la Lu-la’.) When Lula spoke of his conviction that no people can be free until the poor receive just treatment, and said that he might fail in his programmes but would never abandon his principles, many Brazilians cried. And we cried, too.

On Sunday night came the  most exhilarating event of the Forum: a panel on ‘Peace and Values’, bookended by Chilean poet Eduardo Galeano and Brazilian activist-theologian Leonardo Boff. This panel featured social commentary at the highest level in a rock concert atmosphere: the hall that normally holds 20,000 had another 10,000 jammed in. It was hot and sticky and we couldn’t move and we didn’t care. Preceding the panel was an hour of protest songs sung by Brazilian pop stars. We sang along even though we didn’t know the words and danced the dances even though we didn’t know the steps.

Galeano and Boff were superb: enlightened, articulate, illuminating, empowering. Both expressed their belief that another world is possible, a far better world than the one we live in today, but to make this a reality we must begin to work cooperatively. Boff provided what was for me the best quote of the conference: ‘When we care for each other we are no longer afraid.’

While the majority of our combined delegation were from large foundations such as Ford and Tides, there was a healthy representation of dedicated activists such as Kevin Murray from Grassroots International, Mark Rand from the Funders’ Network on Trade and Globalization (FNTG), and Medea Benjamin and Kevin Danaher from Global Exchange. We got a good chance to know these folks, to learn about their activities, and to understand their philosophy. I was impressed with their energy, optimism and tenacity, and their dedication to the highest principles. I felt that I was among friends, people that I trusted and admired.

And this could be said about the entire Forum. I liked the people I met, and came away with the sense that another world is indeed possible. I felt that despite globalization and emergent American imperialism, there is a new spirit of freedom and democracy throughout the world. And perhaps, just perhaps, the times they are a-changing.

What did it all mean to us?

Well for one thing, Kathy and I are going to devote more resources to the global justice movement. We won’t stop any particular effort within the US, but we will pay more attention to developments overseas.

Finally, we plan to attend next year’s WSF, which is supposed to be in India. We don’t expect this to be easy, but we don’t want to miss it. In the final analysis this wasn’t about a smooth conference experience. It was about joining with a group of like-minded friends from throughout the world. Who, although they speak different languages and come from many different cultural venues, share our hopes and dreams, our common belief that another world is possible. Who believe that despite all the world’s problems we can do it, we can change the world, and make peace and justice a common reality.
Bob Burnett is an activist and writer living in Berkeley. In his previous lives he was a Silicon Valley technologist and publisher of In These Times. He can be contacted through Donna Bransford at Tides Foundation at

Tides Foundation and the World Social Forum
Tides Foundation works with individuals, families and institutions to support progressive social change philanthropy. Since 1976, Tides has provided donor-advised funds, philanthropic advice, management services and more to support innovative and effective grantmaking.

In January 2003, Tides hosted a delegation of eight individual donors at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Tides also joined efforts with the Funders Network on Trade and Globalization (FNTG), which hosted 40 institutional funders from several US foundations

For attending delegates, Tides provided:
a reader on the World Social Forum, including political and social background on Brazil and new president Lula, the global justice movement and relevant articles on corporate globalization;

  • an orientation session with a diverse panel of global activists, scholars and funders;
  • site visit to MST (Landless Workers Movement), the largest social justice movement in the Americas;
  • registration at WSF, and logistical planning to ensure a worry-free experience.
  • a rare opportunity to meet with WSF organizers – to hear about the genesis of WSF, goals and future plans.

Tides Foundation’s goals for the delegation included encouraging global philanthropy among our donors, collaborating with other funders and networks (such as FNTG, Social Venture Network, Threshold Foundation) and providing educational opportunities for our philanthropic partners and staff.

For more information, please contact Donna Bransford, Director of Outreach, at

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